The three Latin phrases found on the U.S. one dollar bill are often translated and mistranslated by those uninitiated in the Latin language. These phrases, which capture the spirit and new beginning posited by the American Revolution, embody the new world spread out before the young country when newly liberated from the monarchic rule of England.
Translating Latin phrases found in English is a good exercise for the Latin student to break free of the typical text translations found in Latin programs of study. By examining such phrases, the Latin student can apply common and not so common grammatical constructions that often have subtle but important distinctions.
Translate E Pluribus Unum
E Pluribus Unum is a phrase often mistranslated as “many from one.” However,the initiated Latin student knows that subjects in a Latin sentence must be in the nominative case. The only word in this phrase in the nominative case is “unum”, hence the discovery of the phrases subject. “Unum” is the neuter form of the word “unus” meaning “one.”
The “e pluribus” portion of the phrase is sometimes written (although not on the bill) with a period after the “e.” However, Latin students will recognize that “e” (or “ex” when followed by a vowel) is a common preposition meaning “out of” or “from.” This preposition is normally followed by a word in the ablative case to form a phrase. Looking carefully at the word “pluribus,” the Latin student will recognize this word as the plural ablative form of the word “plus.” In the plural, “plus” functions as an adjective and represents an irregular kin to “multus” which means “many.”
Taken together, the phrase “e pluribus unum” can be appropriately translated as “one from many.” Interestingly however, the gender of “pluribus” can be masculine, feminine, or neuter; all of these genders have the same form in the ablative plural. Therefore, any of the following translations are literally possible:
One from many men.
One from many women.
One from many things.
This phrase is used on the official Seal of the United States that depicts a number of items thirteen in quantity (feathers, arrows, stars, and stripes). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the “many” part of the phrase refers to the original thirteen colonies. Hence, “pluribus” must refer to things rather than people.
Translate Annuit Coeptis
The Latin word “annuit” is the third person singular present indicative form of the word “annuo”, literally meaning to nod or approve. This word has no passive forms, as it would be impossible to be nodded. Consequently, this word may be appropriately translated as “he/she/it is nodding.”
Coeptis is a form of the past participle “coeptum” from the verb “coepi” which means “began.” The verb form of this word has no present, imperfect, or future form in the indicative mood and no present or imperfect form in the subjunctive mood. However, the rest of the tenses are represented in both the active and passive voices. As used in the phrase, “coeptis” may therefore be translated as “beginning” or in this case, “undertakings.”
Taken together, the phrase “annuit coeptis” may be appropriately translated as “He approves [of our] undertakings.” The “He” in the translation refers to God and implies that God Himself has approved of the deeds and actions of the United States in forming a new union.
Translate Novus Ordo Seclorum
“Novus Ordo Seclorum” is a phrase that means “a new order of the ages.” As Latin students know, the subject of any phrase must be in the nominative case. Both “novus” and “ordo” are in the nominative case, with “novus” meaning “new” acting as an adjective of “ordo” meaning “order.” Notice that although “novus” is an adjective, it does not have the same form as “ordo.” Recall that adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify in case, number, and gender. “Ordo” (genitive “ordinis”) is a singular masculine noun and therefore takes a singular masculine adjective. Hence, “novus ordo” may be translated as “new order.” As an interesting note, most Latin adjectives follow the nouns they modify. However, remember that Latin word order is far less important than word order in English. The author of this phrase must have intended to emphasize “new” and, therefore, put it first in the sentence and in front of “ordo.”
“Seclorum” is the plural genitive form of the word “saeculum” meaning “a generation” or “the times.” Therefore, “the ages” is a reasonable facsimile of this sentiment found in New Latin. As a word in the genitive, this case implies possession. Now the pieces of the puzzle can fall into place and we have the complete phrase “a new order of the ages.”
Latin phrases and mottos are common in the English language, especially those that were written decades or centuries ago when Latin was still the language of science, diplomacy, and theology in the Western world. Translating these mottos is an exercise in Latin grammar and an identification of some of Latin’s quirks. In anything, Latin is a language of exceptions with its many twists and irregularities that make it difficult to translate with consistency. As well, learning the Latin phrases our forefathers felt were important enough to emblazon on the money of the newly created United States of America is informative and educational for all American citizens.
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